Acts of the Apostles 6:1–7:50
The Disputation of Saint Stephen
Sanhedrin by the Lagoon
Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors
St Stephen was the patron saint of Venice’s Scuola di Santo Stefano, a confraternity made up of members of the city’s wool guild. This work is part of a narrative cycle painted by Vittore Carpaccio between 1510 and 1520 to decorate the Scuola’s late-fifteenth century chapel—the other three paintings represent Stephen’s consecration (Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), preaching (Paris, Louvre), and martyrdom (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie).
Stephen’s hand gestures, conventionally associated with rhetoric, indicate that he is making a number of points as part of a speech destined to win his listeners over. Despite the presence of exotic elements such as a fanciful pyramid in the imaginary Jerusalem in the background, the setting is essentially similar to contemporary European cities. The group of men who listen to the young deacon’s arguments occupy an open loggia that references the built environment of early-sixteenth century Venice, just as we find in a canvas painted a few years earlier by Carpaccio’s master Gentile Bellini, Saint Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–07; Milan, Pinacoteca Brera). In both paintings, the crowd consists of portraits of the painters’ contemporaries, and the seemingly collegiate robes and caps worn by some of the figures are reminiscent of those worn by members of Venice’s distinctive organs of government, the Great Council and the Council of Ten.
A busy trade port, Venice in the early modern period was also characterized by its remarkable ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity. It is not surprising that an artist working in such a context should encourage viewers not only to identify themselves with the martyr, but also, albeit for a moment, to approach the painting as a mirror in which they see a possible version of themselves as a group.
Carpaccio characterized the elders with styles of clothing similar to those worn by Venetian magistrates, in order to convey what he saw as an important point: that the Sanhedrin wielded both power and moral authority. Only here—as evident to early-sixteenth century Venetians as it is for us—the crowd of onlookers in the painting is the group that will soon pass and execute Stephen’s sentence, or approve of it through inaction. In Acts 7:1, the elders begin by asking, ‘Are these charges true?’, but viewers of this image are invited into an awareness that even scrupulous judges may become blinded by rage and condemn a saint.
Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors
These seven panels by Juan de Juanes (Vicente Juan Macip), one of the chief masters of the Spanish Renaissance, were once part of an altarpiece in the church of St Stephen in Valencia, the painter’s hometown. Five of the panels depict the sequence of events in Acts 6–7: Stephen is first shown teaching in the synagogue, then speaking before the Sanhedrin, later being led out by a mob, stoned outside the city walls, and finally buried.
An imaginary classical interior sets the scene for the dramatic Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy. The elders seethe with rage (7:54), and shout and cover their ears to block out what they hear (7:57). Juanes indicates the part of Stephen’s speech that triggered their anger the most: directly beneath a carving of Moses with the tablets of the Law in the background, Stephen holds a book open at the passage describing his vision of Jesus with God in Heaven (7:55–56), and the saint’s extended hand connects this text to a depiction of the same passage. The painter chose not to define whether Stephen’s vision is seen through a window, or is an incongruous painting in the synagogue interior; this ambiguity helps to convey the supernatural character of the vision. The serpentine figure beneath the seat of the presiding figure suggests the evil character of the assembly.
False denunciations were common during Juanes’s lifetime; in fact, the artist worked on this commission during one of the most intolerant periods in Spanish history, as the Inquisition strove to eradicate any traces of Protestant doctrine from the Iberian Peninsula. In 1559, the country was shaken by news of the detention of Bartolomé de Carranza, the Archbishop of Toledo. His name had been mentioned by members of a purported Lutheran cell. Though a key contributor to the definition of Catholic dogma during the Council of Trent, Carranza spent most of the final seventeen years of his life in confinement, and was declared innocent only shortly before his death.
Stephen’s situation, as described in the book of Acts, would therefore have struck a powerful chord. His antagonists ‘set up false witnesses’ to fabricate an accusation of blasphemy against Moses, God, the Temple, and the Torah (6:11–14), and thus to have him killed.
In sixteenth-century Spain, this was not just a scene from a long-ago past.
Hanging by a Thread
Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors
This altarpiece was originally found in the church of Santa Maria in Badalona, a town near Barcelona, and was painted by an anonymous local master. It contains several scenes of the lives of John the Baptist and Stephen.
The middle-right panel illustrates the delivery of Stephen’s lengthy speech to the authorities as narrated in Acts 7, but, perhaps more interestingly, it also provides a glimpse of the precarious situation of Jews living alongside the Christian majority in late medieval Spain (Mann 2010: 119–21).
From 1242 onwards, authorities decreed that every synagogue should host a yearly sermon, often delivered by a convert from Judaism, entreating the community to embrace the Christian faith. Stephen is depicted as a young, freshly-tonsured deacon in a rich golden dalmatic, preaching one such sermon from atop the teivah, the platform used for the public reading and exposition of the Torah. The elders of the Sanhedrin, with large hooked noses, wear the distinctive hooded caperó imposed on contemporary local Jews. Thus, through setting and fashion, the image effectively negates any geographical or historical distance between the Jewish authorities that condemned Stephen and the Jewish minority who lived in Badalona in the early fourteenth century.
Acts 8:1 informs us that the stoning of Saint Stephen was followed by a period of hardship for the early Christians, seeming to indicate that the growing strain between them and the Jewish authorities had reached its tipping point. A sadly similar outcome—though in reverse—often followed the tense atmosphere experienced by Spanish Jews in the late Middle Ages, to which the Badalona panel bears witness. Around the time the altarpiece was completed, the Iberian Christian realms were in the midst of a wave of persecutions against Jews and intermittent pogroms lasting from 1391 to around 1416.
In the panel, the antagonism of pointing fingers hints at the manner in which the yearly Christian sermons in synagogues were preached and received. Spanish Jews would be expelled from the newly unified kingdoms of Aragon and Castile in 1492, putting an end to any semblance of toleration.
Though he is described in Acts as having ‘the face of an angel’, Stephen is shown in Acts 7: 51, 53, as in this painting, as capable of excoriating attack: ‘You stiff-necked people […] As your fathers did, so do you’.
Such attacks have had a long and lacerating legacy.
Vittore Carpaccio :
Saint Stephen’s Disputation with the Elders, 1514 , Oil on canvas
Juan de Juanes :
Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy, 1560–62 , Oil on panel
Master of Badalona :
Saint Stephen’s Disputation in the Synagogue, 1400–20 , Tempera on panel
A Matter of Life or Faith
Commentary by Pablo Perez d'Ors
The book of Acts singles out Stephen as the first among Jesus’s disciples to be killed for his faith.
Images of martyrs posed one probing, personal question: would you be willing to die, rather than renounce your beliefs?
By contrast, the artworks in this exhibition focus on the communal rationale behind Stephen’s killing, which stoning represents with particular poignancy since, in a literal way, the group acts as executioner. Interestingly, by the time these images were created, the Church’s position of authority could in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to that of the Sanhedrin in the book of Acts. Thus, depictions of Stephen speaking to the authorities perhaps also imply an insidious question that concerns society as a whole: is it ever right to kill those who challenge or offend the religious establishment?
Such a question seems particularly apposite to Vittore Carpaccio’s Saint Stephen’s Disputation with the Elders. This depiction of the elders in Acts 6:12 as respectable contemporary citizens raises an interesting point in the context of Venice, a city that stood out as an example of relative political freedom as well as religious diversity and toleration at the time: a community like that which commissioned the painting could in fact kill the dissenters in their midst. Catholic Venice generally chose against this option, and harboured instead groups of foreigners as well as a physically separate, but nevertheless thriving, Jewish ghetto.
The boundaries between in- and out-groups are set out unambiguously in a panel from an early-fourteenth century altarpiece made in Catalonia—the place from which many of the Venetian Jews had fled. By depicting the elders as contemporary Jews, the artist focused (unlike Carpaccio) on religious identity rather than social equivalence; their cartoonish features convey the idea that they are completely different from Stephen, while their dress identifies them instead with the local Jewish community. Thus, the image seems to encourage both exclusion and the use of a particular reading of Scripture as the basis for anti-Semitic slurs.
Like the Venetian work, this image portrays the society in which it originated. But while Carpaccio’s painting hints at a healthy introspective concern with the treatment of dissenters, this one is steeped in the hateful rhetoric current at the time against a group of powerless outsiders.
Unlike the two other works in this exhibition, Juan de Juanes’s Saint Stephen Before the Sanhedrin was painted in a context in which religious minorities had been nominally either expelled or assimilated. The rounding up of dissenters, however, was far from over, as the Inquisition prosecuted individuals for their unorthodox beliefs or suspect backgrounds. One was at a greater risk for spreading dissenting opinions out in the community rather than for holding the same in private, just as Acts 6:10 informs us that Stephen’s public speaking and teaching turned the authorities on him. In the painting, Juanes focuses on the attitudes of the group of figures who react to Stephen’s arguments. In contrast with the accusatory fingers that indicate heated debate in the Catalan panel, here Stephen points calmly to a vision of Jesus with God in Heaven (7:55–56), which we—like him—can see, while the other figures cannot.
When English traveller Richard Ford saw the paintings by Juanes in the Prado in the mid-nineteenth century, he remarked that the faces are ‘somewhat too Jewish for fine art’ (Ford 1845: 2.754), responding with his own prejudice to the anti-Semitic qualities he perceived in the panels. A thing he failed to notice, however, is that the depictions of the figures in these panels undergo a progressive change as the story unfolds. Their features are naturalistic in Saint Stephen in the Synagogue, taking on a cartoonish quality in Saint Stephen Accused of Blasphemy, which increases to the verge of bestiality in Saint Stephen Taken Out to Be Stoned. This transition may well allude to the way the characters lose their humanity as the narrative progresses from tense disputation to brutal execution. Thus, the violence of Stephen’s death arises from the judges’ vehement rejection of the possibility that an outsider may be seeing something that they are not able to see.
The story of every martyr is the story of a religious establishment reacting against a perceived threat to its spiritual integrity. Stephen justified himself to the Sanhedrin by appeal to a long history which will remain that of Christians as well as of Jews; he takes his place in a line extending from Abraham through Joseph to Moses, and his ‘angelic face’ (6:15) seems almost to weave his and Moses’s identity together. So, we are left wondering whether a logic of religious exclusion can only ever do violence to itself.
Ford, Richard. 1845. A Handbook for Travellers in Spain, and Readers at Home, 2 vols (London: John Murray)